UK Canals and Waterways — [Sir Robert Syms in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 22nd November 2022.

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Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield 9:30 am, 22nd November 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the future of the UK’s canals and waterways.

It is a pleasure to be here this morning, particularly under your chairmanship, Sir Robert, or should I say chairship nowadays? I am not sure.

Last Saturday, I had a pleasant day walking with a colleague along the Coventry canal and the Trent and Mersey canal, where they intersect at Fradley junction in my constituency of Lichfield. Nothing can be more glorious than sitting outside the Mucky Duck pub, whose real name is the Swan, which is at that intersection, to look at the swans, the geese, the ducks and the narrowboats manoeuvring through the locks.

Before covid, I had a very different experience on the Chesapeake and Ohio canal when I went on a narrowboat along the 4 miles in Washington DC—in Georgetown, actually—where it is navigable. The rest is derelict. A couple of national park rangers, whose National Park Service administers the canal, told me that they were saving all their cash to hire a narrowboat and have a canal holiday in the UK. As one said to me, and I shall perform in my American accent, if the House will forgive me, “You guys just don’t know how lucky you are having thousands of miles of canals. You just don’t realise how loved something is until it’s gone.”

The number of colleagues in Westminster Hall today is a testament to how important our canal system is to all of us and to our constituencies. Our canal system is not just for narrowboaters; it is for those who enjoy the tranquillity of walking along canal towpaths and watching the wildlife that thrives there. For that reason, I am most grateful to have been granted this important debate on the future of the UK’s canals and waterways. The need to secure their future is, I am afraid, a matter of increasing urgency.

The nation’s extensive network of canals and waterways runs through around half of all constituencies, so I have no doubt that the House appreciates what a wonderful national treasure our waterways network is. I have more than 20 miles of canal in my constituency, as well as an active canal restoration society, the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust, of which I am a proud patron. My right hon. Friend Wendy Morton, who is sitting here, is a member of the trust, and I am also chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the waterways. I would encourage all colleagues here, who are so keen on canals, to join the APPG.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister: in her constituency of Taunton Deane, she has the beautiful Bridgwater and Taunton canal, and I know she is a regular visitor to it, so she has a vested interest.

I pay tribute to the Canal & River Trust, which this year celebrated 10 years of being a charity and whose recent exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall I was honoured to sponsor. The trust is guardian to 2,000 miles of this nation’s canals and waterways across England and Wales, and thousands of significant historic structures, including 71 of our oldest reservoirs, major docks and more than 2,700 listed buildings. The oldest parts of this extraordinary network date back 250 years, when canals served as the arteries of the industrial revolution.

Other navigation authorities play an important role, but because it is by far the largest and the body responsible for the vast majority of the manmade canals in England and Wales, I shall focus my attention on the Canal & River Trust, and on safeguarding the future of the canals and waterways for which it is responsible. I will leave others to discuss the beautiful waterways of Scotland, Northern Ireland and other parts, such as the Norfolk broads.

Since it was formed in 2012 out of British Waterways, with cross-party support, the Canal & River Trust has proven to be an effective steward of our canals and waterways. It has successfully raised their profile and grown the use of the waterways and appreciation of their value to our society, serving as an effective partner to Government in delivering vital economic, social and environmental benefits for this nation.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Assistant Whip

In my constituency, there is a great group called the Lapal Canal Trust, which is a dedicated project to restore the Dudley No.2 canal from Birmingham, Selly Oak into the Hawne Basin in Halesowen. It is an incredibly dedicated group of volunteers, which is reflected across the whole of the Canal & River Trust. Will my hon. Friend commend their work? I know that the West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, has been heavily involved in that restoration project.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I am more than happy to do so. The work that is being done in my hon. Friend’s constituency—as in my own constituency, with the Lichfield and Hatherton canals—is testament to the hard work and enthusiasm that people have for the wonderful environment created by our canals.

Our canals have seen a remarkable renaissance over the past 70 years, recovered from the dark days of decline and dereliction in the middle of the 20th century. I applaud the role of the Inland Waterways Association in campaigning so tirelessly for their restoration over that time. The Lichfield canal, which I mentioned to my hon. Friend and is currently being restored, was filled in in the 1960s; how unimaginative and short-sighted planners were back then. Now, with more boats on the waterways and use of the towpaths more popular than ever, we are seeing their benefits realised on a grand scale, repurposed for leisure and recreation, health and wellbeing and homes, and still playing a vital economic role for freight and other commercial uses, attracting visitors from across the globe while enriching the lives of so many local communities.

I recall doing a TV programme on the Coventry canal, and as they were interviewing me a narrowboat approached. I decided to ad lib, being a former broadcaster, and as the narrowboat went by I said, “Where are you from?” I thought they might say Dudley; in fact, they said they were from Tel Aviv and were on a canal holiday. The canals affect not just the health and welfare of our people, but bring in commercial dollars to the United Kingdom.

Canals bring blue and green space to the heart of urban areas, connecting town and country and enabling people to connect with nature and enjoy traffic-free routes. Millions of our fellow citizens enjoy the canals, be it boating on the water, canoeing, paddle boarding, rowing—in greater numbers, walking and cycling along towpaths too—angling from the banks or simply enjoying these special, beautiful places on our doorstep, taking time away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. There are now over 800 million visits per year to the Canal & River Trust’s waterways alone, and that figure is rising.

Waterways are on the doorstep for 9 million people, including many of the one in eight UK residents who do not have a private garden, giving them access to nature—often in areas where green and blue space is limited. I suspect that that is very much the case in the constituency of my hon. Friend James Morris. Around 60% of the trust’s waterways run through the most deprived areas of the country, with higher rates of ill health and economic deprivation. They reach many of those in greater need. As we saw so vividly during the pandemic, canals and waterways make a real difference to people’s lives, with tens of thousands rediscovering them in their neighbourhood, finding them to be a lifeline, and experiencing the wellbeing benefits of regular use of free and accessible waterside space ever since.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

My hon. Friend makes some really important points. On his point about urban towns and industrial areas, particularly those that we have in the west midlands, does he agree that, as part of the levelling-up agenda, canals can play a really important part in regenerating industrial heartlands, creating a better environment for families and individuals who want to live in those areas, and creating much better regeneration?

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is interesting that the West Midlands Mayor, who has already been mentioned, is a keen supporter of the Lichfield and Hatherton canals. Why? Lichfield is not in the West Midlands Combined Authority, but it will link to the deprived urban areas of the Black Country to provide additional bucks in the form of tourism. As I mentioned, we need more Israelis and Americans there, and we need more national park rangers.

The trust now partners in programmes to promote green social prescribing pilots and other initiatives, from its “Let’s Fish!” scheme, which has seen hundreds of youngsters connect with nature, to its Active Waterways project in partnership with Sport England, which is designed to overcome inactivity, social isolation, and mental and physical health conditions.

The west midlands, a part of which I am proud to represent, has a special affinity for its canals. They are an integral part of our history and economy, as Metro Mayor Andy Street reflected recently in an article that he wrote for “ConservativeHome”. The recovery of our canals is tied closely to the renewal of the west midlands, contributing to business and culture while providing the spaces that inspire communities. Once neglected, the canal network is now vibrant. It is a driver for levelling up, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, and provides well-connected sites for business and attractive locations for new housing, providing sustainable urban living.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the emphasis he is placing on rivers, waterways and canals in the west midlands, which I too represent through the Ludlow constituency. I commend to him the manifesto published yesterday by the Conservative Environment Network, which is titled “Changing Courses”. It has six measures, all of which are important, to help maintain the health of our waterways. He talked about the health of human beings using them for recreation, but does he agree that when our waterways get polluted, it would be appropriate to consider introducing the ability for the polluter to pay for the problem that they have caused, by diverting the fines currently levied on companies that are found guilty of polluting waterways? Instead of going to the Treasury, they should go to some organisation that would help restore the effects of pollution, regardless of whether it is into a river or canal.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I can say to my right hon. Friend, who is also Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, that not only will I support him, I have actually signed the letter agreeing to that proposal, because it seems an eminent way to ensure that our canals and waterways remain as unpolluted as possible.

We saw how central the canals were to the amazing Commonwealth games in the west midlands, which showcased Britain’s industrial heritage on a world stage. Someone bet me earlier that I was going to say something that I had not planned not to say, but I will now say that there are more canals in Birmingham—in fact, I was photographed alongside a marvellous plaque during the Conservative party conference—than there are in Venice, and some might argue that they are more beautiful. We have to introduce gondoliers into Birmingham—don’t you think that would be an excellent idea, Sir Robert?

I know that colleagues will have equally strong feelings about the central role that our waterways play in their cities, towns and villages. Canals can play a wider role at a time when our water supply has never been more critical. In a changing climate with increasing drought risk, the trust’s canals play an important role in improving the resilience of the nation’s water security. They currently move water around the country to support water supplies for approximately 5 million people, including to Bristol and parts of Cheshire. The trust can support more such waterway transfer schemes.

Only last week, Affinity Water announced its intention to work with the trust to use the centuries-old Grand Union canal to move water from the midlands to households in the south-east. Like Plaid Cymru, it wants to charge more and more for its water, which is what we should do in the west midlands when we supply it to the wealthy south-east.

Canals can also supply heating and cooling for waterside buildings, with enough latent thermal energy to support the needs of around 350,000 homes, as well as providing a cooling effect in urban areas during hot weather, according to research verified by the University of Manchester, and they deliver renewable energy from hydropower. Our canals and waterways form an important part of the United Kingdom’s nature recovery network. They provide a vital corridor for wildlife, with habitats that contribute hugely to biodiversity, supporting the key goals of the UK’s 25-year environment plan and giving people the proximity to nature that inspires them to care about the natural world—what is around us or across the planet.

As a not-for-profit charity, the Canal & River Trust is arguably the largest urban blue space provider in the United Kingdom. The recently released “Valuing Our Waterways” report showed that it delivers £4.6 billion of social welfare value for the nation each year, plus over £1.5 billion per year in economic value, supporting 80,000 jobs. I will repeat that: 80,000 jobs.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Unsurprisingly, my hon. Friend is making a speech of his usual high standard. On the economic benefit that the Canal & River Trust brings, may I highlight my lovely constituent Kay Andrews from Rothwell who runs Kay’s Canal Crafty Arts from her 32-foot narrowboat Pea Green, which is moored at Welford Wharf on the Grand Union canal on the Leicestershire-Northamptonshire border? Kay makes her living by selling hand-painted canal art, and she is a Canal & River Trust licensed roving trader. She trades from the wharf in the summer and then goes round the canals around the country selling her painted crafts. Is that not a wonderful boost to small businesses?

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

That is a fantastic example from my hon. Friend. Those of us familiar with canals know that type of art, with beautifully, vividly painted flowers on coal scuttles and buckets. An ugly bucket can be transformed into a thing of beauty. I have friends who live some distance from canals who have examples of that work in their own homes. That is a first-rate example of how the canals generate income for others and generate business in the economy as a whole.

I hope that I have left all my colleagues here in no doubt about the importance of and value created by our waterways and those who manage them. They are undoubtedly a national treasure and a critical part of our national infrastructure. At the heart of the trust’s success has been the connections it has forged with so many communities along the length of its waterways. We have just heard a first-rate example of that from my hon. Friend. The trust has inspired many to volunteer, and we have heard about that, too. In the past year, the trust’s volunteers gave 700,000 hours, as well as hundreds of partner groups and canal adoptions. Those amazing individuals contribute so much to making the waterways network safe, clean and attractive places for us all to enjoy.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

In a moment. I will just carry on a little bit, if he will forgive me.

On behalf of everyone here, I want to thank the volunteers. But they can only be a small part of the answer. The sustainable future of our canals depends on a substantial continuing investment in the core infrastructure that underpins our historical waterways network. Caring for waterways is costly.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I am a huge supporter of canals, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I have the Kennet and Avon to the south of my constituency and the Thames and Severn to the north, linked soon, I hope, by the Wilts and Berks canal, so we are right in the middle of the southern canal network. What my hon. Friend says about volunteers is absolutely right. Does he agree that the greatest thing about the canal network is that all the work that has been done across the country is largely funded not by the Government, but by volunteers and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which makes a huge and important financial contribution. The network is not Government funded; it is volunteer funded.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that valuable point. Something like 75% of the Canal & River Trust’s funding is from sources other than the Government.

The problem is that our canal system is ageing and is made up of more than 10,000 individual assets, many of which date back 250 years. Many have a high consequence of failure; they are deteriorating and need regular maintenance and repair. That is exacerbated by the impact of more extreme weather events, which make them even more vulnerable. However, it is their age that gives them their beauty and attraction for so many people. Given the serious potential risks posed to neighbouring homes and businesses by the deterioration of reservoirs, high embankments, aqueducts and culverts—imagine what would happen if any of them burst—it is vital that there is stable and sufficient investment in the network to make these assets more resilient and to reduce the possible threat to lives, homes and businesses.

Here is the important bit. The Canal & River Trust receives about a quarter of its funding from the Government, under an agreement secured when it was formed in 2012, and that has been vital in underpinning its progress. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is undertaking a review of its grant for the period beyond March 2027, when the agreement comes to an end. A decision was due in July, but there have inevitably been delays, owing partly to covid and partly to a little turbulence in the Conservative party.

Although it is right that sufficient time be taken to judge the importance of the waterways properly, I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify the revised timetables for the review decision, as the uncertainty is causing great concern to users of the waterways and will soon start to hinder the trust’s ability to plan for the future. It has many important long-term projects to deliver, which could affect the safety of so many people. When will a funding announcement be made?

It should also be noted that the trust’s grant is declining in real terms and is now worth only a little over half of what British Waterways received prior to 2008. It is also fixed for the six years from 2021 to 2027, so the trust is suffering a significant shortfall at a time when many of its costs are rising by significantly more than the 10% headline inflation rate. Roughly £50 million a year is a very small amount for the Government to contribute for such a huge range of benefits.

At the same time, the trust’s wide range of risks, obligations and legal liabilities is growing, in part due to the impact of climate change. The network is subject to more extreme weather events, to which it is acutely vulnerable. That poses a potential threat to the many neighbouring homes and businesses. The risk has dramatically changed, even in the past 10 years. The level of spend now required was not anticipated when the trust was first established, but it must nevertheless be addressed.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

As a neighbour to my hon. Friend and a fellow Staffordshire MP, I congratulate him on his excellent speech, which eloquently covers the points we would all like to make. In my constituency, waterways are the lifeblood of the economy, and I would like to thank people such as Michael Haig for the work they do.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I have forgotten its name, but I have walked along the canal in Stone. It is a beautiful canal, and all the things it generates, such as pubs and the local life, mean that it is very much at the heart of the community.

To go back to funding, about half of the trust’s planned asset spend is now on reservoir safety. It has added about £70 million to its priority expenditure over five years. Despite those pressures, it has been very effective in developing its own income sources to reduce dependency on future Government funding. Its endowment has grown ahead of market benchmarks, and it has found innovative ways to grow commercial and charitable income.

The trust has built strong partnerships with others, such as the People’s Postcode Lottery, which has been a long-term funder, acting as a delivery partner with the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Transport, important public agencies such as Sport England and Natural England, and health service providers, which recognise the tangible benefits the trust can deliver. In 2021-22, the Government grant fell, having made up nearly 40% of the trust’s total income in the British Waterways days before 2010, and it is projected to decline to 20% of the trust’s income by 2027. The trust has therefore not been sitting idly by, just relying on Government funding.

The trust remains fully committed to reducing the share of its funding coming directly from Government over the long term and is continuing to work in partnership. That transition has to happen at a pace that reflects the reality on the ground; securing the investment our waterways need must be the priority. Without that, their future is at risk, the trust’s ability to maintain them is jeopardised, and millions could stand to lose the enjoyment of such a wide-reaching and essential national asset—what I referred to as a national treasure and part of our national heritage.

For those who live on boats, for businesses that depend on waterways, which we have heard about today, and for the services and utilities that need to be carried out on well-maintained towpaths, the effect could be even more devastating. The decline and deterioration of the waterways is an unthinkable outcome for the nation and the communities we represent. I spoke about this the other day on ITV, which also reported from a narrow boat, whose owner painted a bleak picture of what life on the waterways could be like. She said:

“Without that top layer of money coming in, the canals will probably go to rack and ruin;
they’ll probably become muddy ditches and then nobody will want to walk along them, anglers won’t be able to fish and boaters will have nowhere to go.”

She compared the prospect of the decline of our canals—so central to our industrial heritage—with letting the Tower of London fall down.

Our canals are no longer simply remnants of our industrial past; they are a significant social, environmental and economic contributor to our modern society and an integral part of our national infrastructure and heritage. The Minister needs to confirm the timeline for these vital decisions, so that the trust is able to plan the vital investment in our waterways for the longer term, and to give reassurance to the millions who care so passionately for them. That the Government remain committed to the future of our national canal network must be made clear. Underfunding our canals would be a false economy; once they begin to decline, their demise may become inevitable and their benefits may be lost, as they enter a vicious circle, falling into ever worse neglect and disrepair. Like the once great Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, only once they are gone forever will a nation mourn their passing.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Conservative, Poole

I would like the winding-up speeches to start from around 10.30 am. If Members could stick to five minutes, that would be great. I call Jim Shannon.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 10:00 am, 22nd November 2022

First, I thank Michael Fabricant for setting the scene so well. In the devolved Administrations, and especially Northern Ireland, we have different rules, laws and responsibilities.

Our canals and waterways have the potential to be areas of real beauty, whether for boats or for people just going for a walk. As the hon. Gentleman said, they deserve to be kept up to a high standard, and I commend the Canal & River Trust for that, although standards may have slipped during covid—indeed, I suspect that they have. The trust has held a number of events in the House, and I try to attend them all. I am aware of the potential of England’s waterways and indeed of all waterways across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Research has shown that spending time by water, whether as part of a lunch break, the daily commute or a weekend stroll, really can make us feel happier and healthier, and I want to focus on the health benefits. With ever-increasing rates of obesity and stress and declining mental health in the United Kingdom, we are uniquely placed when it comes to making a significant contribution to improving the wellbeing of others.

I am no stranger to talking about my constituency—the hon. Member for Lichfield spoke of his constituency; I will speak of mine—and that also relates to my canals and walkways. Northern Ireland has numerous canals. In Newtownards town, where my main office is, we have a fairly large canal. In the past, the office has been inundated with queries about canal maintenance. Responsibility for that falls between different stools—as it often does—including the Department for Infrastructure’s rivers department, local councils and landowners. There is often a to-and-fro correspondence about accountability.

Constituents often refer to the litter and debris and sometimes to the health hazard. The canal is a wonderful walk, and it is also a cycling and running venue. Ards and North Down Borough Council maintains Londonderry Park as one of its main centres for leisure and relaxation, and the canal’s potential is great. Over the years, I have heard about lots of other issues, including public health. We are in close proximity to the Ards shopping centre. For some reason—I don’t know why—some people think that, after they take their groceries home in the trolleys, they can just dump them in the canal instead of taking them back. That is something we are trying to find a resolution to.

There is certainly scope for DFI Rivers to do more in Northern Ireland to fund and maintain waterways. DEFRA has a role to play. What discussions has the Minister held with authorities and the regional Administration in Northern Ireland on how we can work together to produce something unique and wonderful with our waterways and canals?

Our canals are also a brilliant opportunity for young people to learn the basics of how to harness nature, rivers, bridges and the channels. We also encourage an interest in science, technology, engineering and maths, both in education and for later life, and there are lots of things that waterways and canals can offer in that regard.

For families, for mental health and for those wanting to take small boats out on our canals and waterways, we have a responsibility to ensure the safety and cleanliness of these bodies of water. I will be raising the matter with the permanent secretary in the Department back home to ensure that canals in my constituency are given the attention they need, not just in the town of Newtownards but across the whole of Strangford, and that includes the canals near the Braeside in Killyleagh and at the end of the river in Comber.

Canals offer fantastic potential for physical and emotional wellbeing. UK canals and waterways are central to rejuvenating constituencies, with their tourism potential and all the other issues the hon. Member for Lichfield mentioned. We can have all that, and better, for all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As I always say, better together.

Photo of Maggie Throup Maggie Throup Conservative, Erewash 10:05 am, 22nd November 2022

Erewash is the only constituency that is named after a river and a canal, so it is quite appropriate that I speak in this debate. I mentioned that in my maiden speech, so it is great to be able to expand on what I started a number of years ago.

I want to highlight the amazing work of two organisations in my constituency: the Erewash Canal Preservation & Development Association—that is quite a mouthful, and is usually shortened to ECP&DA—and the Canal & River Trust, which we have already heard a lot about. Without the ECP&DA, a voluntary organisation, the Erewash canal would not exist today. Back in 1968, the British Waterways board was about to close the canal, but the ECP&DA was formed. It probably never anticipated that, over 50 years later, it would be awarded the Queen’s award for voluntary service, in recognition of the important role that it has played in our community.

The volunteers have restored and maintained the Sandiacre lock cottages and toll house, which now open as a museum on Sundays. Towards Christmas, they have mince pies and various festive activities, which is always good to see. The association has also ensured that navigation along the full length of the canal, from Trent lock to the great northern basin in Langley Mill, is possible. The association also continually patrols the canal and extracts a variety of waste items, which I am sure are found in many other canals, from the bottom.

The association celebrated its 50th anniversary with an amazing boat rally, and next year it will celebrate its 55th anniversary in the same way. The association has many benefits, both for the individuals involved and for Erewash. I take the opportunity to thank the ECP&DA; Erewash would not be the same without it—we would have only a river and not a canal.

Just a few weeks ago, the ECP&DA highlighted the many weeds in the canal, which the association was concerned would impact boats going to the rally next May. That is where collaboration with the Canal & River Trust came in, which shows the real benefits of organisations working together. Understanding the importance of easy navigation along the canal for boats visiting the rally, the Canal & River Trust will clear the weeds from what I call the bottom half of the canal, and the ECP&DA will clear the section nearer its base. I look forward to many visiting boats, and people enjoying the pleasures of the Erewash canal, including the newly restored Bennerley viaduct, next May. Whenever anybody from outside the area comes to the Erewash canal, they are amazed by its beauty and tranquillity.

I now turn to the Canal & River Trust in more detail. I met its director for the east midlands a couple of weeks ago to talk about the canal. That included the role that it will play in walking and cycling projects and the waterfront project in the Long Eaton town fund deal, which is part of the levelling-up project, and the trust’s work to repair the locks at Gallows Inn in January. I look forward to seeing those locks from inside, without the water. In the past, my office team and I have volunteered for a day with the trust—the stretch of fencing at Trent lock is badly painted, but we definitely had fun that day.

That is what waterways provide: fun and recreation. They provide an opportunity for exercise and benefit our health and wellbeing. The work of the Canal & River Trust is invaluable. It is the guardian of our waterways, whether the River Erewash, the Erewash canal or the other 2,000 miles of our water network. It provides employment, recreation and volunteering opportunities. It is a protector of our natural environment and history.

As we have heard, DEFRA is reviewing its long-term grant funding. That is why this debate is so timely: the Minister can hear at first hand about the great and invaluable work carried out by the Canal & River Trust. The Erewash canal is accessible because of the determination of the Erewash Canal Preservation & Development Association, and the Canal & River Trust now plays its part in maintaining it. If our waterways are not invested in through the Canal & River Trust, I fear that too many of them will be lost, in the same way that we nearly lost the Erewash canal.

With the benefits attributed to the Canal & River Trust estimated at over £4 billion each year, we cannot afford not to continue funding it. The Government’s investment in the trust is leveraged many times over, as we heard from my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant. The current grant of £50 million per year is money well spent. My plea to the Minister is to give the Canal & River Trust certainty and to renew the agreement without delay.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills 10:10 am, 22nd November 2022

As we have already heard, canals and inland waterways are an integral part of our life and our landscape. In recent years, it is fair to say that we have seen a remarkable revival. My hon. Friend Michael Fabricant referred earlier to covid-19; that is just one of the many factors that has encouraged us all to appreciate what we have on our doorsteps more than ever before.

In Aldridge-Brownhills we have the Wyrley and Essington canal, which has some wonderful walkways along the towpath where people can watch the wildlife, observe nature and enjoy being outdoors. In recent years, we have seen a real revival of the Brownhills canal festival, which is organised by the Lichfield & Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust. It brings visitors to Brownhills and local residents together for what has become an excellent event. We see many community organisations and traders taking part, including the roving traders. If anyone is ever in Brownhills when the canal festival is on, I recommend going to the Jam Butty, because it makes some of the most fantastic jams and marmalades.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I have bought from the Jam Butty. It was at the Huddlesford heritage gathering in my constituency. I believe my right hon. Friend moors her narrow boat there; I think she should declare that.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

It is my husband’s boating passion, but I will come to that shortly. In 2016, Aldridge-Brownhills hosted the Inland Waterways Association festival of water in Pelsall. We took that boat from Huddlesford over to Pelsall for the festival, and we had a great time. Alas, we no longer have that boat, but I can assure you that we still have another one. My husband has a real passion for his canal boats.

Those are just some of the significant economic, social and environmental benefits of our canals. It is estimated that more than £4 billion in additional benefits is brought in every year. That is pretty impressive, especially considering how the Canal & River Trust—a charity—was founded only in 2012. Prior to that, the public-funded British Waterways was responsible for canals and rivers in England and Wales. It is a huge task, with over 1,500 locks, 55 tunnels, 281 aqueducts, almost 3,000 bridges and 71 reservoirs to maintain, improve and invest in for the future.

It is fair to describe the CRT as the guardian of around 2,000 miles of waterways and the protector of historic and critical infrastructure. Much of that is more than 200 years old, and is now vulnerable to climate change. As we sadly saw with the Toddbrook reservoir dam a couple of years ago, that has a real potential to threaten neighbouring homes.

What makes the journey and story of the CRT even more remarkable is the way in which it is funded from a diverse range of sources; I would go through those, but I am conscious of the clock. Alongside the various income streams, I want to recognise the role of volunteers in my consistency. Aldridge rotary club is one of the many organisations up and down the country that is involved in maintaining one particular strip. I must declare an interest as a Rotarian.

The CRT is a huge success story, but I cannot stress enough the importance of the £52.6 million grant that it receives from DEFRA. I came to speak today to urge the Minister and her Government to continue to support the CRT. The benefits are massive—there are health-related, economic and wellbeing benefits, as well as benefits for community groups. At a time when so many families are feeling financial pressure, it is an opportunity to explore the outdoors for free. Given that the CRT has not just stepped up to the plate but gone way beyond it, I hope that the Minister and her team will look positively when reviewing the grant and continue to pay, de minimis, the £52.6 million a year—or increase it, because the return on investment is absolutely huge.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk 10:15 am, 22nd November 2022

I thank my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant for this important opportunity to speak on this matter. As everybody knows, I represent a beautiful and rural coastal constituency with 52 miles of glorious coastline. But we also have a little secret—one that not many people know of. I have Norfolk’s only locked sailing canal, the North Walsham and Dilham canal. I invite my hon. Friend to come and visit it any time he wants.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I will take that up if I can stay with my hon. Friend.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk

Certainly, but I had better check with the wife first.

The canal was originally about 9 miles long and was built by private investors under a local Act of Parliament passed in 1812. It was built for carrying goods in Norfolk’s famous wherries, originating from or travelling to as far afield as London and the north-east via Great Yarmouth. It served the local community for over 100 years. But like many canals, it fell into disuse with the new railways and the improvements on our roads that made the transportation of heavy goods easier and faster.

In 2000, enthusiastic volunteers started to restore our waterway into what is now quite simply the most beautiful and magical setting one could ever see. It was in 2008 that the North Walsham & Dilham Canal Trust was formed. The trust volunteers have helped the owner of one of the stretches of canal to completely restore the first mile. From North Walsham, one lock has been completely rebuilt, another pair of gates at a second lock have been replaced, and we are now well into the next section of the canal, which is a mile and a half in length—and that work is royally ongoing.

The question is, why is such work so important? Like this debate, it is about the future. Ultimately, volunteer groups do it to benefit nature and biodiversity, and to preserve the historical structures that in many cases, up and down the land, are not used as they used to be. They also do it to help the welfare of our local populations and for tourism, which we have heard many hon. Members talk about.

In my constituency, the volunteers regularly hold work parties, which have been described as a sort of outdoor gymnasium, for people to come and get involved. That brings great benefits to the community. My stretch of this beautiful canal is now used for wild swimmers, canoeists, paddleboarders and fishermen and women; there is also a small solar-powered vessel operated by the trust and its volunteers. Quite simply, it is also a quiet spot to have a picnic, or to take a few hours out and just relax. The benefits to mental and physical health are clear for all to see.

However, there is always a “but”—and my “but” is about the Environment Agency. My plea to the Minister is that the EA must listen and learn from the volunteers, because if it was not for my volunteers, this piece of disused canal that had fallen into disrepair would not be as established as it is today. The greatest challenge of the trustees is always to prove to the EA the great work that they are doing. That is entirely within the aims and the objectives of the Environment Act 2021.

I end by thanking the volunteers, especially those work party leaders. Without them, and without many of the hon. Members who have contributed today, our beautiful canals would not exist. I thank David Revill, our current chairman, who has done so much work, and Graham Pressman, who humbly describes himself as just the boating officer on my stretch of canal. However, all those back home know that Graham is a fountain of information and enthusiasm who embodies the passion that has restored this fabulous waterway.

I leave hon. Members with the aims of my trust, which I am sure are the aims of every single trust mentioned in this room today: to promote the benefit for the public and the restoration, conservation and protection of the natural environment around the canal. On seeing the work my volunteers have done, I am sure the canal is in safe hands going forward.

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Conservative, Stroud 10:20 am, 22nd November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I thank my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant for bringing this important debate.

I am excited to talk about our canals because I am the vice president of the Cotswold Canals Trust and I take every opportunity to talk about the fabulous men and women who have done so much for our communities. The organisation boasts the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, which I nominated it for and we accepted last year. It has also won engineering awards and so many more accolades.

The trust is winning stuff with so much good reason, because we have hundreds of volunteers, as many hon. Members have said, and they are really skilled. Being in my patch means we have nuclear scientists, engineers and people who have taken time out to come and help us with our vision for our canal network. They also let me dredge part of our canal. If hon. Members look at my Instagram video of that, they will see a massive smile on my face as I saw the dredgers go backwards and forwards. The volunteers are absolutely fantastic. They also work closely with councils; Stroud District Council is a big partner. The stakeholder working group is huge and to their credit. We also have real excellence in the fundraising department, winning £9 million of lottery funding, and I opened the Stonehouse bookshop, which is the second of the fundraising bookshops in our area.

I live near the Saul junction and I can see the River Severn from my house, so waterways are important to me. As some hon. Members have already said, during the devastatingly dark times of lockdown, when we were walking round in circles for the short time we were allowed out of the house, the canal waterway was vital to my mental health and to many other people’s as well.

The main reason why the communities and canal network teams in my constituency are superb is their brilliant and bold ambition for what we are trying to do. In 1975, a team of waterway enthusiasts recognised the importance of our canals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield has so beautifully brought to life today, we have to bear in mind the history of the networks. The Gloucester and Sharpness canal was planned in the late 18th century and it opened in 1827. By 1905 the traffic exceeded 1 million tonnes. In my own little village, we had an important Cadbury’s factory, and we were bringing in goods and using the canal networks to connect to the midlands. We all know how important that business was for our country and for chocolate.

As for that bold ambition, we would like to connect the River Severn to the Thames, with water-transfer opportunities woven in. We have a wet bit of the country and we can bring it to a drier bit of the country. We have made a real commitment to restoring the Cotswold canals to full navigation in the interests of conservation, biodiversity and local quality of life. We have had a few phases of that, with the Gloucester and Sharpness canal phase and the Cotswold Water Park to the River Thames. Phase 3 will link the central section, which includes the now-derelict Sapperton tunnel. Phase 1A was opened by His Majesty the King and we have come up against some serious engineering challenges. I would welcome some visits to the A38 roundabout, because we have put a canal through it, which is pretty impressive.

Will the Minister visit Stroud? I know she knows and loves my patch already. Will she give the Government a bit of a kick on funding and also ensure they understand the importance of that? I say “they” because it is not just DEFRA—it is the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department of Health and Social Care and so many other Government Departments. They need to understand that when we ask for support for our canal and waterway networks, it is about tourism, health, wellbeing and the local economy. I ask the Government to work with organisations such as the Cotswolds Canals Trust because they are stacked full of experts and they are constructive. They do not ask for something unless they genuinely need it, because their first port of call is usually to try to find things and do it themselves. I cannot thank my local teams enough. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member) 10:25 am, 22nd November 2022

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Sir Robert. I too thank Michael Fabricant for bringing forward this debate on the future of the UK’s canals and waterways and congratulate him on what was an excellent speech. I also thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Erewash (Maggie Throup), for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) and Wendy Morton for their valuable contributions to the debate. It is a pleasure to come here this morning to inform this Chamber of the healthy state of Scotland’s thriving canals and waterways. I am glad the hon. Member for Lichfield is looking forward to hearing so much about them.

Canals have connected Scottish waterways east to west and north to south for more than 200 years, and they continue to play an increasingly vital role in connecting our local communities back to nature and our heritage. Scotland’s inland waterways are treasured historic assets that firmly belong to the people of Scotland. The Forth and Clyde, Union and Monkland canals in the lowlands of Scotland, the Crinan canal in Argyll and the Caledonian canal in the highlands extend to around 137 miles from coast to coast, across our country and through the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness.

Built more than 200 years ago to power and fire the industrial revolution, with coal from the Lanarkshire mines transported along these intricate canal ways, today our inland waterways massively contribute to the Scottish Government’s agenda of developing a greener, healthier, wealthier, smarter, safer and ultimately fairer Scotland by acting as a catalyst for sustainable economic development, regeneration and tourism, contributing to education, biodiversity and our heritage and promoting active living and healthier lifestyles, which we all know to be so important.

Today, Scottish Canals, the body responsible for managing the country’s inland waterways, is utilising these 18th-century assets alongside new and innovative technology to tackle modern-day problems. Working with local and national partners to create pioneering systems, Scottish Canals is helping to combat flooding and driving positive transformation in some of Scotland’s most disadvantaged areas.

The Monkland canal in my constituency was the basis for creating surrounding settlements such as the town of Coatbridge. As I touched on earlier, it was responsible for the transportation of coal from the former mining heartlands of Lanarkshire to fire the industry we are so renowned for in Scotland. As the coal industry has receded and times have changed, the modern-day canal is tended to and taken care of—like so many others, as we have heard this morning—by volunteers. The Friends of Monkland Canal group is a volunteer organisation that is chock full of passionate people who undertake regular activities along our inland waterways, helping to inform local residents of the history of the canal, working collaboratively to keep the area clean and tidy and making it a welcoming environment for locals and those from wider afield to utilise.

The volunteers’ fantastic work has successfully encouraged a major investment from Sustrans, which has provided a grant of £429,000 for upgrades to the pathways surrounding the canal, as well as the installation of new drainage systems. Paving and other remedial works along the canal approaches will open up the canal to so many more residents—those who use wheelchairs, families with prams and buggies, cyclists and so on—making it more accessible to everyone in our community and allowing it to be used by every person every single day of the year. This work will bring Monkland canal right into the 21st century and make it fit for future use. I am sure the Minister will join me in commending the Friends of Monkland Canal organisation for its stellar work and its service to not only the local community but all of Scotland for its care and consideration of our canals and inland waterways.

As we British Waterways move towards a post-covid era, we must understand the positive impact that canals and their environs can have on our mental health and wellbeing and utilise them to overcome the still- felt effects of multiple lockdown periods on our communities. A global study conducted by the University of Glasgow in 2020 found that people who live within 750 yards of a canal have lower risks of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension compared with those who live further away, and that is independent of socioeconomic factors.

The SNP and indeed the Scottish Government fully recognise the benefits that canals offer and are committed to supporting Scottish Canals to deliver on its ambitious objectives. Since 2019, the capital grant for Scottish Canals has increased by 87%, alongside an uplift each year in resource funding, plus additional funding to mitigate the impacts of covid-19. The most recent project by Scottish Canals is the Stockingfield bridge project in north Glasgow, which has won the 2022 Institution of Civil Engineers people’s choice award—well done to all involved. The two-way spanning cable-stayed pedestrian and cycle bridge opened earlier this month. It took 21 months to complete at a cost of £14 million, which is a bargain. It connects the communities of Maryhill, Gilshochill and Ruchill on either side of the Forth and Clyde canal for the first time since 1790.

Finally, I encourage our counterparts from all across these islands to follow the example of Scottish Canals and ensure that our waterways are protected and upgraded, to allow the surrounding communities to embrace the ultimate benefits of the splendid nature around them.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:31 am, 22nd November 2022

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Sir Robert.

I congratulate Michael Fabricant on securing this important debate on the future of Britain’s canals and waterways. He has campaigned tirelessly on this issue over the years, and with good reason. That was evident from his contribution and from the speeches and interventions by many others. It is not often that the Opposition are in full agreement with the hon. Member, but that is the case today. We should all congratulate ourselves on that.

I offer the apologies of my hon. Friend Alex Sobel, the shadow Minister, for whom I am subbing today. He is away from the parliamentary estate on shadow ministerial business, so I have been drafted in to guide us through the calm waters of this debate.

This country was the first in the world to develop a nationwide canal network that connected towns and cities, brought people together and developed and stimulated so much of the trade, industry and commerce that modern Britain was built on. I have the great pleasure of serving the people of Newport West, and in our neck of the woods we boast a unique flight of 14 locks, the Cefn flight, which rises 160 feet in just half a mile. That must have been an amazing sight in its heyday. Such locks and canals are a legacy of the engineering wonder of the industrial revolution, and they also make up part of the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal network, which is widely recognised as being one of the most beautifully located set of waterways in Britain. I give a shout out to the Monmouthshire, Brecon and Abergavenny Canals Trust for all the work that it does, and in particular to Councillor Yvonne Forsey and the other volunteers in Newport West.

Our canals are no longer the arteries of trade that they were 200 years ago. The car, bike, van and truck have all come through the middle of them—literally. Today, canals and riverways mainly provide other functions—possibly too many to list in the short time I have to speak, which only shows their importance. We have already heard that they offer free and accessible outdoor space and recreation for millions of people. Indeed, Adam Jogee, who works in my office, and his fiancée Alison Lawther, alongside two of their friends, Mark Streather and Allison Katz, took the chance to stay on a canal boat during a recent recess. It was Adam’s first time on a canal, and he said that although it was a little chilly at night they had a great time on the canals around Bosworth, Stoke Golding and Nuneaton. I hope the hon. Member for Lichfield is pleased to know that on this side of the House we do not just praise our canals but use and cherish them, too.

Our canals provide homes for boaters; importantly, they help to prevent floods; and they have given us a network of green corridors steeped in rich industrial history that is unlike anywhere else in the world. Our waterways are also home to tens of thousands of different species, including some of our most precious creatures, such as bats, water voles and dormice, all of which are at risk of extinction. This debate gives us an opportunity to air our concerns and bring attention to the fact that we all need to do more and go further. Given that the United Kingdom sits in the bottom 10% of countries globally when it comes to biodiversity, it seems obvious that we should do everything in our power to protect the unique habitats we have and the plants and wildlife that call them home. That is what His Majesty’s Opposition will do when we win the next election.

We are broadly at one on the issue, but I cannot let the Minister leave before I have raised a number of specific issues. I know she would expect nothing less. She knows that the job of protecting and developing our phenomenal canal and waterway network falls largely to the Canal & River Trust, so why have Ministers postponed the announcement of the trust’s grant, which provides around a quarter of its funding? It was due to be announced on 1 July. The fact that the Government—well, two Prime Ministers ago—were collapsing is no excuse not to ensure a sustainable and long-term programme of support for the trust, so why, as the final leaves fall from the trees, have we still not heard from the Government, despite their assurances that the overdue funding would be allocated in autumn? The delay is threatening the future of our canals and of all those who rely on them. Furthermore, it makes it more difficult for the trust to plan for the future and hampers the progress of a number of large projects that are designed to help to build and shape much-needed resilience to the harsh and increasingly frequent effects of climate change.

Indeed, the Office for Environmental Protection—a body set up by the Government only last year—has received a complaint describing the constant delays as being

“at risk of becoming the default culture within Defra”, and just weeks ago the Government failed to meet their own legal deadline to introduce targets on clean air, land and water. There have been many more missed deadlines, quietly scrapped funds and delays to important legislation—I am thinking in particular of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill.

As we discuss the future of Britain’s canals and waterways, I am conscious of the fact that, behind the grand environmental claims, Ministers constantly make the wrong choices. The Opposition believe that is unacceptable, and we want Ministers to be active and to speak out much more quickly. It is not hard to wonder whether the delay in the announcement of the grant for the Canal & River Trust is about whether to slash it or scrap it. If that happens, the trust has been clear that it will not be able to maintain its work of protecting our precious waterways.

At a time of ecological and economic crisis, Britain’s canals and waterways are a haven for wildlife and people alike. I ask the Minister to heed our calls, and the calls made by Government Members, and commit herself to protecting our heritage, saving our wildlife and preserving much-needed opportunities for future generations by properly funding Britain’s canals and waterways, and to do that today.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Conservative, Poole

Before I call the Minister, let me remind Michael Fabricant, who introduced the debate, that he might get a minute or two to make a winding-up speech.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:37 am, 22nd November 2022

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Robert, for what has been a most delightful start to the morning, kicked off by our effervescent colleague, my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant. I expected nothing less because my hon. Friend brings real passion to the subject, on which he has spoken many times. This morning, my hon. Friend also brought his acting skills to bear and used his American accent. All that has helped us to bring the subject to light, as has the wonderful array of colleagues present. At one point, there were no fewer than 10 Conservative Members here, although I wonder where our Labour colleagues are. Perhaps they are not as passionate about canals as we are.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I of course do not include the hon. Gentleman in that comment. He is ever present in Westminster Hall, and he brought to light the canals in his area. I am going to speak about English and Welsh canals, not Scottish and Northern Irish ones, because Scotland and Northern Ireland sort themselves out and run things themselves. However, it was lovely to hear about the canals in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

What a cornucopia of canals we have heard about—canals from across the country—and I have been struck by the stories that Members told, particularly those about the engagement of volunteers. We have also heard many great names, such as the Erewash canal and the Wyrley and Essington canal, as well as a whole lot from the Cotswolds, which I think my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie puts under the Cotswolds hat—the Stroudwater canal, the Gloucester and Sharpness canal, and the Thames and Severn canal, which are all in the area. She is spoilt for choice.

We also heard about the Walsham and Dilham canal, which is small but becoming perfectly formed after all the work. I have had quite an association with the Kennet and Avon canal, which ran right past my school in the centre of Bath. It played quite a big role in my life: we would go out there for art classes and walk along it. I met my first boyfriend on a sponsored walk along the canal from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon, so I have never forgotten it. My husband and his mates always used to do some sort of activity every year, and the very last activity he went on with his group of lads before he died was on the Kennet and Avon canal. It was in November and it was pouring with rain. He was on crutches, but they still had the most magical time. I remember it with great fondness. That is what can be done on a canal.

I now live near the Bridgwater and Taunton canal, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield mentioned. It was a go-to place to walk along during the lockdown, so it was very important. We have heard about all the benefits that our canals bring, including the huge public benefits—enjoyment, leisure, recreation and waterside holidays. My husband went canoeing, and paddleboarding has become incredibly popular; I suppose it is quite good to do on a canal because there are no waves, unless a boat passes.

Canals have all those great benefits, and there is also their history and industrial heritage. There are huge health and wellbeing benefits to walking along a canal. During lockdown, we regularly used to see kingfishers. Even with all those people walking along the path, the kingfishers were not afraid because it was their habitat and home. We have heard about the amazing green corridors that canals can forge through our countryside, and particularly in cities and towns. I take issue with what the shadow Minister said, because the Government are doing a great deal of work on reintroducing biodiversity in nature. We are setting targets for that, and canals form a very important part of it.

The United Kingdom’s largest navigation authority is the Canal & Rivers Trust. As has been said, something like 800 million visits are made to our canals every year, which is pretty phenomenal. That shows just how important they are. Our waterways and navigation authorities have a really important part to play in helping to ensure that this important piece of our infrastructure is resilient to climate change and helps us to meet our net zero targets through sustainable transport, energy generation and the transfer of water.

Water security is becoming an increasingly important issue. I am the Water Minister—I am pleased to say that is one of the hats I wear—and water security is as important as all the other issues that we are tackling, such as water demand. Climate change is triggering changes and extreme weather events. The Government are developing policies to adapt to climate change right throughout the country, and our navigation authorities are exploring ways to adapt the network to climate change.

The infrastructure can also contribute to net zero. That includes examining the feasibility of increasing electrification of the networks and encouraging boaters to switch to electric vessels. Earlier this year, the Broads Authority, with funding from the Department for Transport’s clean maritime demonstration competition, examined the potential for the electrification of the broads hire boat fleet. The Environment Agency has installed a number of electric charging points along the non-tidal River Thames, and the Canal & River Trust has installed electric charging points on a few of its London canals, including a trial eco-mooring zone on the Regent’s canal, part-funded by DEFRA and the London Borough of Islington.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

The Minister is setting out some fantastic examples of how we can help our waterways to adapt for the future with electric points and so forth, but one thing that really concerns me is our ageing infrastructure. Looking ahead is fantastic and absolutely the right thing to do, but will she reassure me that the Government will play their part when it comes to the maintenance and restoration of the infrastructure that we have today?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank my right hon. Friend for that pertinent point. I will refer to it a bit later in my speech, but it is a really serious point. Of course, infrastructure is affected by climate change and extremes of weather, which are putting more pressure on some assets. As well as the opportunities around electrification, there are similar opportunities with active travel and the cycle networks along our canals, which allow people to get away from roadsides and travel in a much fresher and cleaner environment. If we can get more people to take to their bikes, it will help us reduce carbon emissions and tackle the net zero targets.

Let me go back to water security, which is really important. Our navigation authorities have an important role to play in this endeavour in times of both flooding and drought. They can help by managing water levels, and the long dry spells this summer have highlighted how the canal network could increasingly play a role in water transfer, particularly from west to east. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned taking water from the wet west to the east. All these things obviously have to be carefully worked out, and I have spoken to the Canal & River Trust about how such opportunities would work. I particularly welcome Affinity Water’s plan to work with the Canal & River Trust to transfer water through the Grand Union canal, and I know others are looking at other such opportunities.

As has been touched on, the network has a really important historic value, with much of it being more than 200 years old. It matters a great deal to people and a lot of restoration work is under way. We have heard so much about volunteers and I, too, thank them. So many volunteers have played a key role in restoring sections of our canals, and I particularly want to mention that I had a wonderful trip to the Monty canal in Montgomeryshire, where I met lots of volunteers and saw the work they were doing. They have benefited from a £16 million levelling-up fund grant. Members have mentioned the levelling-up benefits of canals, and that money is being spent well in the community to restore the fantastic canal in the centre of town.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Minister is talking about funding; when can we expect the funding announcement for the Canal & River Trust that was supposed to be made back in July? Rather than the parliamentary “shortly”, can we have an actual date?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Lady mentioned that in her speech, as did others, so I will come to it now. Many Members mentioned the annual grant to the Canal & River Trust, so I want to explain a bit about the grant, how it happened and the history around it. The grant stands at £52.6 million until 2027 and currently represents about one quarter of the trust’s annual income, which means that the trust derives three quarters of its annual income from other sources. That distinction is very important, because one of the trust’s objectives when it was created in 2012 with charitable status was that it would be free of the public sector constraints that its predecessor, British Waterways, was subject to. Freedom from public sector constraints meant that the trust would be free to develop other income generation strategies, including by benefiting from charitable donations and legacies, charity tax reliefs, third-party project funding and borrowing on the financial markets.

It is also worth mentioning that in 2012 the trust was endowed by the Government with a significant property and investment portfolio, which is currently valued at around £1.1 billion, and the returns were to be used as income. The clear intent was that the trust would reduce its dependence on the Government grant and foster increasing self-sufficiency by providing access to income streams not available to public corporations and by stimulating new efficiencies.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield that British Waterways received more funding than the Canal & River Trust: indeed, that was the intent behind establishing an independent charity to undertake that function. However, it is important that we compare like with like when looking at the evolution of Government funding. British Waterways, a public corporation, was responsible for the waterways in England, Wales and Scotland, whereas the Canal & River Trust—which is a charity, with access to charitable benefits and tax breaks—is responsible for England and Wales only. Scottish Canals funding represented £10.5 million in 2011-12, and the existing grant increased by £10 million in 2015-16 and has been inflation-adjusted until April 2022. It is then required by the grant agreement to be flat for the final five years of the grant period.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

I appreciate the Minister setting out the history behind the finances, but I want to reinforce the point that when we discuss the £52.6 million that the Canal & River Trust is in receipt of, we must not underestimate the huge level of income streams that they are generating, heading towards the target that the Government want them to get to. It is important that the Government do not lose sight of the £4.6 billion-worth of benefits that are coming in in various ways. Also, given that the climate change agenda has changed so much since 2012, does the Minister agree that we are not comparing apples with apples here?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My right hon. Friend makes some sound points. That is why the team in DEFRA is working so closely with the trust to iron out what is required and what would be the right tapering or reduction of rates. That is being carefully calculated, because huge benefits are realised and the pressures of climate change are changing things. Of course, as we have heard, the Canal & River Trust is already attracting grants from other places—the levelling-up fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and so on. Some big grants have come in that way as well.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It will have to be quick, because I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield a chance to wind up.

Photo of Maggie Throup Maggie Throup Conservative, Erewash

The Minister has hit the nail on the head, but without realising that the grant that the Canal & River Trust receives is an enabling grant to ensure it can get grants from other sources. Without that enabling grant from the Government, some of the other grants and support would probably not come through, which shows how important the Government’s support will continue to be.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I do not think anybody denies the importance of the Government’s support, hence why so much care is being taken in working out the future of that support. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield noted, the grant was agreed for a period of 15 years, from 2012 to 2027. That was to give the trust a measure of financial stability while working on its other income streams, which it has done very effectively. That includes maintenance of the canal network, which is a significant part of annual expenditure, and it is the trust’s responsibility to decide on its priorities and consider where it needs to spend its money. We are all aware of the Toddbrook reservoir dam incident three years ago, which highlighted how essential it is to put safety at the forefront as a top priority of waterways. I know that will remain the case.

The grant agreement requires that a review of the trust’s grant be carried out at the 10-year point, which is what my Department is currently completing. We are looking with a laser focus at all the issues that have been raised, scrutinising the trust’s performance to date—has the grant been value for money?—and the case for continued funding into the future. As I have said, we are working closely with the trust on this matter; the review has been concluded, and indeed was due to report by 1 July. A range of extraneous influences, politely referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash, slowed that somewhat, but it is progressing now with speed. I am unable to comment further in detail on the outcomes, but it will be announced forthwith—not shortly but forthwith. The Department and I will continue to work with the new chair, David Orr. I am looking forward to meeting him and going out on more visits.

In closing, I thank my hon. Friend for raising the subject, and all colleagues for giving insights on the joys of canals and getting to the nub of what is concerning people. Funding is obviously of paramount importance. We have to get that right, which is why time is being taken over it. The announcement will be made as soon as possible. In the meantime, I wish the trust all the best with the great work it does. I do not think anybody denies for a minute the enormous benefits we get from our canal network.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield 10:56 am, 22nd November 2022

I thank everyone who participated in the debate. I did not make a list but the Minister did, so I would like to thank her for making that list of about a dozen people who participated. I thank all the parties involved, especially the Minister.

I was feverishly looking up the meaning of “forthwith”, but I did not get that far, or of “immediately” or “in the near future”. Clearly, that is immensely important, as I think the Minister knows. I will embarrass her by saying she is nodding, I think in agreement with me. Everyone here realises the importance for the Canal & River Trust to have some idea of what its grant will be after March 2027, when it terminates. It needs to plan which canals remain open. We do not want to see any of our canals close like the example I gave of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal. As Joni Mitchell sang:

“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

We do not want to see that happen to our canals and waterways, but we need some certainty. I am a little disappointed, though I understand the reasons why the Minister could not give certainty today. I am sure that “forthwith” means not a year or two years from now. I am sure that “forthwith” does not even mean three months from now. I hope that “forthwith” means that within a few weeks we will learn precisely what grant the Canal & River Trust will be given. Only once it knows that, can it plan ahead. Only by planning ahead will we be able to maintain such an important element of our national heritage.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the future of the UK’s canals and waterways.